"The state's seven major cities have adopted similar policies for those incidents, with the exception of Billings."
From the story, "Coroner's inquests quick to clear police following fatal shootings," by Billings Gazette reporter Sam Wilson.
"With the exception of Billings" -- if those words don't stick out, then it this statistic should: Billings has roughly 10 percent of the Big Sky state's population, and yet it is responsible for 33 percent of all fatal officer-involved shootings in the state.
Billings in practice and by statistic is the exception. It has more people and more officer-involved shootings. Montana is somewhat unique insofar as it ranks in the Top 10 in per-capita number of fatal shootings involving law enforcement.
In a three-part series published by The Billings Gazette last week, reporter Sam Wilson dug deeply to find several odd, if not disturbing facts. One of the most glaring is that almost every agency that has an officer-involved shooting relies on the state Department of Criminal Investigation through the state Department of Justice to do an independent investigation.
Except Billings. And sometimes Yellowstone County.
We believe police and all law enforcement agencies have a really, really tough job. It's only getting more so with the scourge of methamphetamine and its twin burden of opiate addiction. And, we believe that police and law enforcement officers continuously put their lives on the line, never knowing if something as simple as a traffic stop will go horribly, tragically wrong.
And yet, because there is possibly no other position in society afforded as much power as the police, we believe there should be every safeguard and check on that to ensure that they're following protocols as well as having accountability for the awesome responsibility that comes with wearing the badge.
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For no other reason than the sake of appearance, you'd think that both the Billings Police Department and the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office would want an independent agency to come in and review the cases if for no other reason than to assure a public who is becoming increasingly skeptical of officer-involved shootings.
We're not just hand-wringing about some hypothetical situation, though. It's real. It's interesting that the only two agencies which haven't asked the DCI for an independent review also had to pay out notable sums of (ahem) taxpayer money to families of shooting victims. Yellowstone County settled a suit with the family of Loren Simpson and Billings had a lawsuit settled with the family of Richard Ramirez.
And yet both of the coroner's inquests held for the shootings had cleared the officers. While we believe the coroner's inquest system is in severe need of updating and modernizing, we also believe that departments should do more to ensure a truly independent and thorough review of officer-involved shootings.
We hope that both the Billings City Council and the Yellowstone County Commissioners consider changing policies to mandate an outside investigation, and require that any final report be made fully and completely public.
As we continue to see law enforcement come under more scrutiny for using deadly force, we believe that the faith and trust in our law enforcement hangs in the balance. And we believe that there are certainly instances where law enforcement officers must use lethal force.
However, every time a law enforcement officer uses force that could hurt or kill a resident, we must be assured by someone not connected with the department that it was justifiable. The only way to do that is by having someone with autonomy and independence. To think that someone on a department's payroll would find against a colleague or the department itself seems naive.
We understand that departments, like the Billings Police Department and the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Department do a good job. And, we even understand why they'd want to handle the investigations of officer-involved shootings on their own.
But, we think that justice, the citizens of the city and the county, and those who have been shot deserve more.